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The lame duck Senate is going to try to rein in NSA spying

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced that he will be seeking a full Senate vote on the USA Freedom Act. The legislation is designed to place stricter limits on NSA surveillance — especially its controversial phone record program. The legislation will need support from 60 Senators to pass the upper chamber.

"The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done," Said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the lead sponsor of the legislation,  "The answer is yes.  Congress can and should take up and pass the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act, without delay."

What the USA Freedom Act does

The original version of the USA Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in October 2013, had a number of provisions on the wish lists of civil liberties groups. But by the time the legislation was approved by the House of Representatives in May 2014, it had been watered down so much that leading civil liberties groups opposed it.

So, in July, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced his own version of the USA Freedom Act in the Senate. It is less radical than the original USA Freedom Act, but places more limits on the NSA than the legislation approved by the House.

Debate over the USA Freedom Act has focused on the best way to rein in bulk collection of Americans' phone records. The Senate version of the legislation requires any collection of phone records to focus on a suitably narrow "selector" — a search term that identifies an individual, phone line, or other specific entity.

The Senate bill would also take some other steps to make the NSA's activities more transparent and accountable. Right now, when the government asks the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve surveillance activities, there is no one around to present opposing arguments. The Senate bill would change that by creating several new positions for public advocates who could participate in FISC proceedings.

The bill would also require the government to disclose significant FISC opinions (though the government could decline to publish them if it decides doing so would damage national security) and to publish detailed statistics about the extent of domestic spying activities.